Men’s Match Preview: Wellington Phoenix vs. Western United

The Wellington Phoenix men are venturing into the unknown in the Isuzu UTE A-League after being laid low by COVID-19.

Twenty players had to isolate for seven days since the first positive test in the squad a few days after Christmas.

The Phoenix were forced to take a mid-season break, with their matches against the Newcastle Jets and Perth Glory postponed. And head coach Ufuk Talay had to roll back the clock and join in at training last week to help make up the numbers.

“We had the five boys that didn’t have it. They were training through last week and then we’ve had dribs and drabs of players coming out of isolation into training,” Talay said.

“We’ve had to modify what they were doing in the sessions because we’ve never lived through this previously.

“We don’t know what will happen after they come back from having COVID so just being mindful of trying to build them up again.”

Talay says the majority of the players who tested positive only experienced minor symptoms.

“Some had sore throats, some were fatigued as well but it has been quite mild.

“All of the players have had their check-up with the doc so they’ve got the clearance and the tick to come back to training, which is a positive.

“We made sure we followed every protocol possible to make sure the players are healthy and available to do their job.

“It was quite mild with the players, but I think it has had some effect. You can see in the players that have just come back that they’re pretty fatigued.”

Monday was the first day the full squad, including new signings Gael Sandoval and Scott Wootton, trained together in preparation for tonight’s match against Western United in Wollongong.

Sandoval is expected to make his Phoenix debut tonight, but Wootton’s first appearance in Wellington colours may have to be delayed.

“Scott’s got a tight quad at the moment so I’m not sure if he’ll be available for this game.”

The coaching staff have attempted to slowly get the players back up to speed, but it has been a balancing act.

“You can see some players are fatigued a lot quicker so…it’s not going to be easy to build them back up.

“At the same time the league is going to continue and we need to expose them as a much as we can to be able to train and play at that level.

“We’re not wrapping them in cotton wool because we have to expose them to a certain level of intensity because they need to play a 90 minute game on the Friday.”

Ufuk Talay says the “fittest and strongest” players in the squad will start the match.

The Nix last played on January 5, when they stunned reigning A-League champions Melbourne City in the quarter-finals of the FFA Cup.

It was “a confidence booster for the players” after a run of defeats in the league but Talay says they can look at the enforced mid-season break two ways.

“We came off a good win in the Cup and you want to build momentum and play as many games as you can with the confidence in the group.

“But at the same time the [transfer] window is open, we get Gael and Scotty in with the group and that gives them a chance to work with the team and have an understanding of how we want to play.

“For me I’m always big on momentum. It would have been great to continue on and play games after that Cup win, but the situation is what it is.”

Tonight’s opponents, Western United, have been out of competition for even longer as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia.

John Aloisi’s side last played against Melbourne Victory on Boxing Day.

Which side adapts best to their extended A-League absences is likely to go a long way to deciding who comes up with the three points at WIN Stadium.

The round 11 Isuzu UTE A-League match between the Wellington Phoenix and Western United is scheduled to kick-off at WIN Stadium in Wollongong at 7:45pm AEDT (9:45pm NZT) and will be broadcast LIVE on Paramount+ and Sky Sport 7.

Most recent meeting: 7 December 2021 – Western United 0 Wellington Phoenix 1

All-time head-to-head: Phoenix 5W, Western United 1W & 1D.

Wellington Phoenix squad: 3. Matthew BOZINOVSKI, 4. Scott WOOTTON, 5. James MCGARRY, 6. Tim PAYNE, 7. Gael SANDOVAL, 8. Ben OLD, 9. David BALL, 10. Reno PISCOPO, 11. Jaushua SOTIRIO, 13. Nicholas PENNINGTON, 14. Alex RUFER (c), 16. Louis FENTON, 17. Callan ELLIOT, 18. Ben WAINE, 19. Sam SUTTON, 20. Oli SAIL (gk), 21. Joshua LAWS, 23. Clayton LEWIS, 30. Henry GRAY (gk), 31. Kurtis MOGG, 32. George OTT, 33. Finn SURMAN, 34. Jackson MANUEL, 40. Alex PAULSEN (gk), 43. Oskar VAN HATTUM, 88. Gary HOOPER
Unavailable: 20. Oli SAIL (gk) (injured), 43. Oskar VAN HATTUM (injured)